MPs have decided to relaunch a parliamentary inquiry into the body that monitors the roles taken up by ex-officials in the private sector, after the government “flatly rejected” recommendations made in a report last year.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee announced the inquiry yesterday, after publishing the government’s response to its proposals on beefing up the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which offers advice on the appropriateness of former civil servants and ministers taking up roles outside government.
Bernard Jenkin, PACAC chair, said the magazine Private Eye had done a better job than Acoba of scrutinising Whitehall’s “so-called revolving door”, and that gaps in monitoring and non-compliance with the rules were corroding public trust in democracy.
He said there was a lack of understanding of how many ex-officials have ended up in a position to be able to draw on their insights from government after leaving the civil service.
But the government “appears not to take the matter seriously”, PACAC said.
The committee published a report in April 2017, which found that “the situation had got worse” since its predecessor committee investigated Acoba in 2012.
In 2010, Acoba’s responsibility for scrutinising the business appointments of senior civil servants in grades below director general level was removed, and departments took over that role. The data on these ex-officials has become patchy, said Jenkin.
The committee also said that Acoba’s advice was predicated on the Business Appointment Rules, which are “largely procedural” and have no sanctions for non-compliance. It suggested that a statutory system should be considered.
Its report last year concluded: “Acoba, in its current form, is a toothless regulator which has failed to change the environment around business appointments… The government must take steps to ensure that the Acoba system is improved swiftly. In the long term, failure do so will lead to an even greater decline in public trust in our democracy and our government.”
Responding to the committee’s recommendations, the government committed to making a few tweaks to the Civil Service Code, including to ensure officials taking a career break follow the same procedures as those that guide the Business Appointment Rules. It also committed to informing departing civil servants in their exit letters that non-compliance of the rules could be a future consideration should they wish to return to the civil service.
But it said an “unprecedented level of information is made public” by Acoba already, and that it “strongly disagrees” with the proposal that appointments not taken up by ex-officials following advice should be made public. The response added that undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of replacing Acoba with a statutory scheme would not be a good use of public money.
PACAC said the government’s response was “inadequate given the seriousness of the issues raised in the report and their potential to undermine public confidence”.
Announcing the new inquiry in parliament, Jenkin, a Conservative MP, said the committee’s main recommendations had been “flatly rejected by the government”.
“I’m afraid many people believe this to be hopelessly complacent,” he added.
“The way we manage conflicts of interest arising where former ministers and crown servants leave the government to take up jobs elsewhere really matters.
“There is a constant stream of embarrassing stories in the media about the so-called revolving door between employment in the public and private sector, suggesting that people misuse the advantage of a job in government to lucrative jobs outside.
“While many of these stories may be unfair, this is deeply corrosive of public trust in our system of democracy and government, because the present system of oversight fails to provide adequate assurance.”
He cited the “constant flow of Ministry of Defence civil servants and senior officers from the armed forces who finish up working in the defence industry”, but said that “a similar situation occurs in other departments”.